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Review: Oppenheimer. A stunning gift for your senses

  • Release year: 2023
  • Director: Christopher Nolan.
  • Producers: Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven and Emma Thomas.
  • Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan.
  • Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema.
  • Music by: Ludwig Göransson.

Synopsis: biopic focused on Robert Oppenheimer’s life from his student years until he’s awarded the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963.

Shotgun Commentary: a story so beautiful and gripping that makes the 3 hours it lasts feel like 30 minutes.

Fig. 1. Oppenheimer being exposed to the media. Source: Oppenheimer
(Christopher Nolan, 2023). Universal Studios.

Review

Oppenheimer tells the story of one of the greatest injustices in the history of America. While it is not new in the field of science to be unfairly judged by a bunch of prejudiced ignorants, the way Nolan narrates the story of one of the most relevant scientists of the last few decades is unique.

The events that transpired are told beautifully. All the licences taken by Nolan make sense. They are clearly in pro of showing more clearly Oppenheimer’s personality and what goes on in his head without the use of a voice over –a fact that is greatly welcomed after so many narrated biographical films.

All the right decisions

The lack of voice over is as great of a choice as the controversial sex scenes. In fact, they are related in a way since the latter convey through imagery and conversation the nature and depth of his relationships and thoughts, information that would normally be shared through the first.

It is definitely a surprise to see these types of scenes in a Nolan film. However, they are as critical to show Oppenheimer’s personality as the incident of the apple. This moment has never been proven and is most likely fictional. Still, it is a great descriptor of Oppenheimer’s state of mind during that part of his life. It shows how his thoughts plagued, accosted and terrified him, sometimes to the point of self sabotage.

Fig. 2. Oppenheimer sharing his views on the export of radioactive isotopes.
Source: Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023). Universal Studios.

A film that makes complex science and bureaucratic procedures its main themes is hard to watch unless it’s told smartly. The convergence of quantum mechanics, love, betrayal, trials and hearings, conspiracies and, in a way, adventure, is a very volatile one. It is a powerful mix that can easily get out of hand. Luckily, Nolan has proven to be just the man for the job, delivering what is probably the best biographical motion picture that has hit the cinemas in years.

A symphony for your eyes

In accordance with the story, the technical part of the film is an outstanding piece of art. The use of monochrome scenes for an objective point of view and colour for Oppenheimer’s personal experience is masterful.

In addition, the sequence of moments showing Oppenheimer’s academic past as student and teacher, his closed hearing, and Strauss Senate hearings and meetings in between, create a temporal symphony that stays in tune throughout its whole duration, letting the audience discover the whole story slowly and at the exact pace that Nolan wants.

Fig. 3. Explosion from Oppenheimer’s promotional posters. Source: Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023). Universal Studios.

This structure is greatly enhanced by the alternation or simultaneous presence of complementary colours in each scene. This palette choice, along with the macro shots of chemical reactions describing how Oppenheimer sees the world and its functioning, ensures the spectator’s complete attention.

Not only that, but those abstract images, accompanied only by instrumental music, also convey Oppenheimer’s views and thoughts. There is nothing literal about them and yet the message is absolutely clear: the beauty, the horror, the curiosity, the danger of knowing, the emptiness of not knowing. They are the “music” that Oppenheimer hears.

The 40s are calling

Great part of the wow-factor of the film is, of course, the Trinity nuclear test. This moment, as well as other less regarded moments of the film, would not be as stirring had it not been for the flawless settings they happen in. Oppenheimer is set during the 40s and 50s and there is no anachronism in sight.

Furthermore, small details such as accessories and props have clearly been chosen with the utmost care, as have the costumes. These are based on the actual clothes worn by the real-life people who took part in these events. It is for this reason in particular that the makeup of the film turns out to be such a disappointment.

The black sheep

While Cillian Murphy looks very much like Robert Oppenheimer, little has been done to improve the resemblance between the other actors and their characters.

Fig. 4. Head shot of Oppenheimer in his most iconic look. Source: Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023). Universal Studios.

Some simple techniques like dying some eyebrows would have made all the difference in several cases. It is quite dissatisfying that no one bothered to do this work, especially since the movie features pretty big names in the industry. These artists are very recognisable and therefore harder to imagine as another real person. There is only so much resemblance you can achieve through casting choices and sometimes it is definitely not enough.

If it looks, talks and walks like a physicist…

Cillian Murphy keeps surpassing himself with each role and Oppenheimer is no exception. His similarity to the physicist goes way past the physical aspect. The paused speech, the meditation before each word, the gestures of the mouth, the eyes fixed nowhere –Murphy is, quite simply put, perfect in his performance. He even imitates the tone, vibration and accent of the voice, not to mention Oppenheimer’s posture, shoulders shrunk and elbows out, back slightly forward. The resemblance is astonishing and the enormous amount of work behind it is apparent and definitely worth watching over and over.

Such a strong performance can only be complemented by strong supporting characters, the best of which is undoubtedly Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt).

You’re only as good as your supporting cast

Kitty is a complicated, brave and strong woman, and Emily Blunt is the perfect actress to portray such a character. Her character’s imperfections don’t hinder her amazing personality and intellect. It is her complexity that makes her unique. Kitty is very charismatic. Nonetheless, the obligation of being a housewife instead of the biologist she’s trained to be weighs on her immensely. Blunt shows all these different layers of passionate lover, reluctant housewife, hateful mother, responsible parent, faithful wife and scorned woman superbly.

Fig. 5. Oppenheimer having a nervous breakdown and Kitty pulling him back to reality. Source: Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023). Universal Studios.

As for Robert Downey Jr.’s role as Lewis Strauss, it is a talented performance, much like any other work of his. However, it is detrimental to have seen RDJ in so many courtrooms in previous roles because now it is hard to see the difference between Strauss and Tony Stark, for example. He delivers a great performance, but at times there is too much of him. This pulls you from the film and reminds you that it is RDJ and not Strauss that you are watching.

An lesson in your own feelings

The immersive sound accompanies not only the mood of the film but also the protagonist’s thoughts and the reactions of creation and destruction that plague him. The drumming increases the tension and makes the audience stressed and overwhelmed, like Oppenheimer. Paradoxically, the most powerful part of all is the few moments of complete lack of sound, during the explosion. These few seconds are so powerful and chilling that they make your heart pound.

Fig. 6. Oppenheimer climbing the steel tower where the bomb is. Source: Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023). Universal Studios.

The soundtrack from Oppenheimer represents the “music” he hears. This has nothing to do with actual music, and yet it makes you share the same mindset that the protagonist had: the thrill, the nerves, the excitement, the terror, the wonder.

When he teaches or talks about the functioning of quantum mechanics the music accompanies him, never leaving the idea started by Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) that you don’t need to know how to read the music, you just need to hear it.

This idea is reflected in his first class, when Mr. Lomanitz “hears the music” for the first time. It also reflects the audience experience, giving the spectator goosebumps and moulding their emotions regardless of their knowledge in physics. They might not be able to “read the music”, but they can hear it. They can understand the gravity of the situation presented.

Advice to take from this movie:

  • Never trust anything that comes out of the mouth of a politician (not much suprise there really, but worth noting).
  • The world is sadly run by fools.
  • Silence is more powerful than any possible sound.
Fig. 7. Strauss looking all frustrated. Source: Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023). Universal Studios.

What’s your take? Have you watched Oppenheimer? Don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts in the comments section below or leave a message in my contact page! For more reviews and cinema-related articles check out the rest of my blog! 😀

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